A Birthday Post

For my sixth birthday my parents gave me a shiny blue Schwinn. The other memory of that birthday is Ohio received its first snowfall of the season. A special treat “just for you,” Dad said, but it put the skids on taking my new bike out for a ride. Yet that didn’t deter him. “Here, you can ride it around inside.” I climbed onto the seat and he guided me around the back room/laundry room. It was large and open enough for a wide loop and a tight figure-eight. As the bike and I wobbled, the training wheels alternated a quick kiss on the linoleum. Dad was as giddy as I was over the present and the chance to ride a bike inside the house.

Today is another first, memorable birthday – the first without my Dad, who passed away in July. This is not a melancholy post. Dad would have none of that. But it is bittersweet because for the first time in several years I won’t answer the phone and hear him play Happy Birthday on his harmonica.

I’ve posted one of my favorite pictures of us several times on FB and here –  we’re sitting together at a local softball game. I always knew I favored his side of the family, but in that photo I see just how much. So for this post I’m using two others, ones I’d forgotten but re-discovered as I gathered photos for his memorial video.

This one is from my son and daughter-in-law’s wedding almost 10 years ago. I love how Dad is looking right at me, or as he came to refer, “my undivided attention.” That was an important message he kept insisting upon in his last weeks. That we take time to visit, really listen, give people our undivided attention. When I came across this picture I realized how often he did just that.

This is a more recent picture, maybe two years old? Dad was always one for a joke, a good laugh – even at his own expense – a fun time. Again, in the weeks before he died he was insistent on another message, that love was all that mattered. I’m not sure he ever realized how truly big his heart was, but in this picture I see his love and joy.

So while it’s my birthday, I celebrate half of the team that made this day possible. And now it’s time to go to my phone and play an old message I’ve saved, because nobody plays Happy Birthday on the harmonica like my Dad.

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National Poetry Month – Barbara Lunow

I purposely left Barbara’s post for last. Her story expresses for me the power and importance of language and poetry. A fitting end for National Poetry Month.

I met Barbara when she joined one of our local critique groups. Her smile and joy for life is infectious. Last year we went to Table Rock Writers’ Workshop together, along with her husband Dan, and ended up on the wrong side of Charlotte . . . going the wrong way. Instead of getting upset or worried, it became an adventure! We laughed, found our way, and still made it to the mountains in good time.

A sense of adventure is second nature to Barbara and Dan – they were missionaries in Papua, Indonesia for over thirty-five years working with the Sougb Tribe. They fell in love with the people and their language. This from the preface of Barbara’s book of poetry, Star Drops and Spider Hairs“. . . became fluent in their language – first analyzing it, then translating Christian scriptures, religious instruction booklets, and other teaching and cultural materials into their native tongue. These books were the first ever printed in the Sougb language.”

 Reading Barbara’s poems there is no question what life was like among the Sougb people, and  in the jungles of Papua, Indonesia. One gets a sense of the cultural differences in the misunderstandings, the humor and eventual connection as languages formed a bridge. There are the real hardships in living with tropical weather, with fighting tribal peoples, in being separated from family and everything familiar. Yet Barbara’s joy comes through.

 Barbara’s book is divided into three sections – poems given to her in the Sougb language that Barbara then translated into English; reflections on her life as she raised her five children and lived among the Sougb people; and poetic portraits of ten Sougb women. I’ve chosen a poem from each section.

From Star Drops and Spider Hairs, published by Main Street Rag Publishing, posted with the poet’s permission. In this first poem, the author of the translated poem is in italics beneath the title. Phrases in italics within the poem are exact Sougb phrases and conversation translated into English.

Star Drops and Spider Hairs

~ Su-roo-ray Village in the morning

 

Heaven breaks open atop the ranges.

Sunbeams peek over the ridges.

Light streams spread out, lengthen

and flow down the slopes, melt away

sleepy clouds at rest over Boy Lake.

 

Celestial greets terrestrial: golden rays

crown the forest canopy.

Star drops fall, sparkling, glistening gems

on slender silken grasses.

Spider hair is strewn in jeweled threads

among drooping petals; laced webs,

woven between bush and branch.

 

Muffled voices sing rhythmic chants,

the songs of God’s Voice. Smoke seeps

through thatched roofs into dawn haze.

Cedar and burnt-wood scents waft out

and float upwards, absorbed into the mist

after Night’s rain.

 

Bark doors unlatched, gilded rays rush

in with the promise of warmth to come.

Shoulders shrouded in a faded red blanket

shiver. Weathered feet step over the portal

to stand on the mossy, pole ledge.

Cool mountain air diffuses to welcome

Sun’s radiance into a new day.

 

 

Within the Bamboo Fence

I wasn’t afraid – okay, maybe a little.

My husband wasn’t there when men

flooded through the gate, wielding machetes,

bows and arrows at the ready. They chanted

threats in rhythmic beat, divided, and faced

off between two sides, enemies. Local leaders

called a meeting with church elders.

The bamboo fence became a fixed boundary,

inside declared a place of refuge, safety, peace.

 

A widow fled into our year to claim sanctuary

and release from a forced marriage as a second

wife. Sworn enemies left weapons outside

the bamboo. They settled disagreements, shook

hands on neutral ground. Armed soldiers entered

without fear of rejection to ask for rice, food,

and medicine. My children played in safety

with their friends. All the while, the villagers

watched over us. I wasn’t afraid – anymore.

 

 

The Compliment

crowded together on the bench,

everyone talks at once.

I try to catch phrases.

A pause in conversation,

their attention shifts to me.

Emboldened, in child-like curiosity,

they touch my face, my hair,

and run fingers up my arms.

Are they talking about my looks?

Why my hair is straight and theirs is curly?

I understand words, but they talk so fast.

Now everyone laughs, watching Justina

feel my legs, stroke my calves.

At her remarks, the women nod their heads,

murmuring in apparent agreement.

Somebody, please tell me what she said.

 

Oh mama, I wish I were like you.

Your legs are soft and tender,

Just like chicken drumsticks.

 

A Sweet Savor: Dei-Yo-Mer

A teenager with a shy smile and quiet

manner, pledged to her father’s friend,

a widower, his children full grown.

It was arranged, agreed – the young bride

would join the white-haired man.

She accepted her destiny

with grace.

 

In her early twenties, a mother of one girl,

two boys. He was her father’s age, unwell.

She cared for him through his death. Her days

shortened as a wife, a care-giver, she became

a widow with three children and accepted

her new role without self-pity,

with determination.

 

Still young at thirty, she cared for family,

an epileptic child, and worked in the gardens.

Yet she found time for weekly Bible class,

where she renewed her spirit and faith.

Village women came and asked her,

Please, teach your Bible stories

to us, also.

 

She humbly agreed to their requests.

Because her eyes were blind to letters,

she taught what she knew from memory,

while working and providing for her children.

Ever loyal and true, she chose to follow Jesus’ path

with joy.

 

Barbara answers my questions ~

My first poems were writing valentines that we made for our moms in elementary school. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I do remember I didn’t like the ‘roses are red, violets are blue’ poems that kids always wrote. I tried to make mine more substantive, ahem.

I haven’t written any poetry in my adult life, until the last couple of years. Several friends in my writers’ groups challenged me to write free verse using the Sougb tribal language as it sounded when transliterated into English. I am really enjoying doing that, as I learned so much from their language and it has great beauty of words and thoughts when you consider they are a very primitive society.

Who would I like to have a cuppa with, if I could? I would be honored to sit down with Fanny Crosby the prolific hymn writer. So much of what she has written speaks to my heart.

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National Poetry Month – Libby Swope Wiersema

I actually met Libby through Facebook! She was a fellow Kakalak poet so we have mutual friends. After exchanging messages, we finally met in person and became real friends.

In her short, tight poems Libby has a way with descriptions and turns of phrase, that leave her images lingering well after reading the poem. She invites readers into her world, settles them in and tells her stories. With Libby’s gift of picking just the right sensory details, readers not only see the poem. They smell, hear, and taste it.

From The Season of Terminal Cold, published by Finishing Line Press, posted with the poet’s permission.

Picture of Mama, General Dynamics Christmas Party, 1962

to the lady with the starburst of rhinestones

pinned at the waist, I want you to know

you were an exclamation point,

a declarative dressed in a black cocktail dress,

punctuating an office stark and cold with metal desks,

paper bells strung from the dropped-ceiling heavens.

Your girlfriends stand to one side, martinis tipped,

pensive faces shifted away from the lens

that you locked eyes with, brazen

as the band of boy-men who circled

as if you were a Cadillac,

their eyes begging for the keys.

 

How We Melt Into You

We believed we could just take off

and land in womanhood, skipping

like a needle on a 45 to the best part of the song.

 

Lingering in the bedroom in the mornings,

we plotted ways to mimic

our mother’s most mysterious arts –

 

The painted, arched brows,

the burgundy lips that left their feathery print

on the paper of her cigarette,

the magenta of her nails filed to blunt arrows.

 

We begged Aunt Jane, an Avon lady,

for rosy buds of lipstick samples, for waxy sticks

of Hawaiian White Ginger to coat our wrists,

took sooty hubs of Number 2 pencils to our eyes.

 

Our garishness masked maternal gifts

we already carried but could not see:

her bones curved into the dove of my cheek,

her fluidity to your sienna hair flipped to a wing.

 

We aimed to melt into her one day, like the red

Crayons we fed through the Easy Bake Oven,

our fingers braving a blistering dip in the cake pan

to make us some nails like Mama’s.

 

End Stage

My body curls over her

close to the rattler,

her breath – a snake uncoiling.

 

Almanac

Blades of grass have died to bayonets,

and the basil pearled its tips to an early seed.

even the slender throats of daisies

dropped their coral heads weeks ago –

that’s what a brute this season has been.

 

In June, the family came to say goodbye

to you. We quivered against one another,

grieved over our loss in the contrived cool of a church.

It was a steamy 94 outside that day.

 

July’s drought broke, but only on our brow,

I awakened each day, parched and sweating,

my water glass, a sentinel among the mementos at my bedside:

a lock of hair, a photograph, a few spoons of ash inside a shell.

 

Now, the Carolina August tilts, a cup of fog

that spills across the calendar. I pencil a dot

on the 31st to mark your birth, a period

At the end of the month when the mercury dips

to a bearable 82 only one day in ten.

 

I wrote my first poem when I was eight years old. It was inspired by a book, “Paul the Peddler” by Horatio Alger. My grandmother would read to my sister and me each night. We were mesmerized by the tale of the underdog Paul, a dirt-poor boy who improved his lot in life through honesty, industry and a bit of good luck. I wanted to honor his ethics with my little poem.

If I could drink wine with a poet of my choosing, it would be the late, great Anne Sexton. Her work sparked my adult poetic pursuits and love for other confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds. Oh, to be so vulnerable and exposed through my poetry. I want that kind of courage.

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National Poetry Month – Robert Lee Kendrick

Robert and I finally met when he came to read during our local monthly reading and open mic. When I saw the cover of his book, Winter Skin, I had a feeling I’d like his poetry. The cover shot is a rural snow-covered road – a wintry scene I grew up with in Ohio. And I was right about his poetry.

Robert sees both the brokenness and the beauty of humanity, from the depths of drug abuse to the sweet rhythms of street music. In the Midwest’s practical, matter-of-fact language, each word holds weight and adds punch. He takes you from abandoned factories to ball fields, where pick-up games last until the crack of the bat fades into twilight.

From Winter Skin, published by Main Street Rag Publishing, posted with the poet’s permission.

out of season

down sassafras mountain

a blind turn opens

to a deer’s rib cage on the yellow line

waiting under the moon like two skinned hands

cupped in offering & warm with august heat

 

someone has the meat & the pointed rack

some ground is strewn with the offal & lungs

& this has been dumped for coyotes & dogs

or to send surprised faces through windshields

someone wants the baring of teeth

 

kneeling in the bent

humid glare of my headlights

breathing sour metal

of blood & sweat

I hook my fingers around rank

pink flesh  & drag this ark

of an unholy covenant

into the ditch off the shoulder

the poacher’s altar boy

taking care of the elements

 

when I rub my hands with a rag

they ripple like troubled water

& traces of blood musk

breathe my part in this kill

they will be my companions

for the dark miles home

& the scavenger mouths

that know nothing out of season

will gnaw rough graces from bone

 

Shadow Ball

We chucked a Louisville Slugger over the fence,

barrel & handle turning end over end

to cut the sunlight in uneven lops

before it tumbled to ground.

Four feet of chain link hopped. Cooler

& boom box handed over, Olde English 800

& black leather angels on homemade cassettes.

Late evening haze hung over

the outfield & pitcher’s mound

shimmered with heat crawling dirt.

We could sneak an hour

before sunset. Over at the plate

& four in the field, heads still spinning

from basement Black Sabbath,

we played with our lengthening shadows.

No helmets. No umpire. Malt liquor

tilted Lincoln High field to our slant,

a can per man to put more bite

on cutters & curves, to blur hops

& liners & hang oracle pop ups

close to the moon, red stitched Sputniks

leaving town for longer than we could.

Three years gone from black pinstripes

& Ls on our caps. Racetrak & Kroger shirts

all day, pizza delivery Highway Stars

at night. Twilight baseball between.

Two strikes down, we’d call long shots

& swing from the heels & foul them straight

back. No keeping score, no way to win,

nothing to lose but a few stolen balls,

just hang in & hack while you can.

When buzzed luck met muscle memory,

northern ash launched white leather

high through the darkening deep blue

& rose, a long hyperbola into the trees.

 

street music

summer stars left our names

off the marquee moon

as renuka’s congas & matt the cat’s bass

opened the locks for a river of groove

fat tino’s trumpet

skipped ricochet cuts

& leapt to the sky

as ‘toine’s tenor sax hugged

the muddy bank’s funk

pulling the brass back to earth

I threw swamp flowers down

comping chords on my guitar’s rosewood neck

& john firefly rapped from the sidewalk

calling all down to our river

baptizing with baraka & MOVE

& mad dog 20 20 was his meat

the town of normal gave us wide berth

so we played for june heat & streetlights

let the water rise over our heads

small sidewalk trees did their slow juke

& we swung with the shadows of leaves on our skin

out of season was previously published in Stonecoast Review. Shadow Ball was previously published in San Pedro River Review. street music was previously published in The Main Street Rag.

 

Robert answers my questions ~

I wrote my first poem when I was 41 from a prompt I found on the web, 2008. The prompt was to write a poem about a mythological character. I chose Icarus. Illuminations picked it up. Sheer blind beginners luck

I’d like to have a cup of coffee with Richard Hugo. Coffee to keep him from the alcohol 😉

 

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National Poetry Month – Sue Weaver Dunlap

Sue is another of my Mountain Sister Poets, met at Table Rock Writers’ Workshop four years ago. From that one week in the mountains studying with Joseph Bathanti, we four women bonded as family. We look forward to our annual poets’ retreat and return home with at least eight new poems, inspired by our time together. I listen to Sue talk and read her poetry, and I feel the mountains rise around me.

Sue is a proud, regional writer, her voice truly Appalachian. In her poems one hears the hollers sing a mountain cadence through the wind, rivers and trees; one feels the spirit of the animals that dart, lumber and hide; is absorbed in family – both living and deceased – who sit on porches, cook in kitchens, work the land. She honors the strength, perseverance and faith of a proud people, and celebrates their joys and hopes.

From The Story Tender, published by Finishing Line Press, posted with the poet’s permission.

A Daughter’s Homecoming

Say it right – Appalachia

Appalachia – at the end

latch the door.

 

But you didn’t, you know,

latch the door tight enough.

Ever so timid,

I have crept into these

mountains,

your birthplace

never your home.

 

I snuggled in,

pulled the covers

over my body.

I breathed faint remains

of long ago smelted copper,

a ritual baptizing

in Tumbling Creek, then

climbed high

on the Big Frog.

 

I can reach forever

backward

forward.

 

You didn’t

latch the door,

Mother.

Now I am

Home.

 

From Knead, published by Main Street Rag Publishing, posted with the poet’s permission.

Grandmother

Down on Tumbling Creek

cool shadowed beneath Little Frog

I chanced upon a well-worn trail

snaking through soft pines sprinkled

with spindly hardwood brush

leading to ancient fence ghosts

circling imagined remains of her home.

 

I tarried a while, caught children playing

amid trailing giggles and spirited shouts

trickling along field stone grief and labor

until I caught the faintest whisper alive

with my name across a hundred years

of sinew and bone, ricocheting.

 

Knead

Age on the calendar, she said, it don’t matter much,

just marks time for folks, not living. Years don’t count

none. People form our days, ease or pain don’t suffer us.

 

Breathe them in, she said, sort of mix them up inside,

see how they settle, glisten like sand on Bush Creek

or churn muddy after hard summer storms up river.

 

Don’t matter any, Mama said, that extra year on our skin.

Lines ebb and flow, lips purse and give. Girl, just hold folks,

knead them into place, and rock, rock as the leaves gather.

 A Daughter’s Homecoming was previously published in Outscape: Writing on Fences and Frontiers, Southern Poetry Anthology Volume VI: Tennessee. Knead previously published in Appalachian Journal.

 

Sue answers my questions ~

I was around 40 when I wrote my first poem about my cousin Flat. My second poem was A Daughter’s Homecoming which has been anthologized many times.

I would love to talk with Jim Wayne Miller about our dear, dear Appalachia.

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National Poetry Month – Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser is another poet whose poems make me slow down, and dig into my own rural, Midwest roots. His book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, is as well-worn as his books of poetry on my shelf.

Commenting on his writing, Kooser also told Contemporary Authors: “I write for other people with the hope that I can help them to see the wonderful things within their everyday experiences. In short, I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention.” ~ from Poetry Foundation

 The ordinary includes family heirlooms, weather, the land. He sees in those common things the stories of them, recognizing all hold a story. Reading his poems is like studying a painting, taking in all the details that the artist knows is important, but we could easily miss.

Here is the final audio poem for my poetry quilt, Ted Kooser reading his poem, “Pearl

His birthday was yesterday, April 25. Happy Birthday to a favorite poet. 

 

It’s hard to believe April is almost over and along with it National Poetry Month. I’ve had the honor of introducing twenty-five amazing poets and their work so far, creating a poetry quilt rich in texture and emotion. I hope you’ve enjoyed meeting these writers as much as I enjoyed re-reading their poems and sharing them with you.  The remaining four poets will add their unique patterns and voices, putting the final pieces of the quilt together. I think you’ll agree, the quilt is quite a piece of art.

Ted Kooser’s photo by NPR.org

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National Poetry Month – M. Scott Douglass

Another full disclosure, Scott is the publisher and editor of Main Street Rag Publishing – so he published my first collection of poetry. But even if he hadn’t, I’d say these things about him.

One of the attributes I admire about Scott is his honesty. One never wonders what he thinks about in politics, about life in general, about one’s poetry. Scott will be respectful, but won’t sugar-coat critique. Poets need that kind of honest feedback in order to write better. And he’s down-to-earth enough that he also expects that kind of honest feedback for his own work.

He’s generous when it comes to fellow poets and poets just getting started, encouraging and supporting through open mics and readings.

His love and admiration for his wife, Jill, is evident in just about every conversation.

All of this makes for amazing poetry, and Scott’s is. He minces no words when skewering politicians – though he often adds a bit of humor. His images are clean, with no unnecessary fluff getting in the way. When he writes about his motorcycle, it’s like riding with him in a sidecar – because Jill will be on the back! Scott’s recollections and reflections of growing up in Pennsylvania leave no doubt in the reader’s mind that the steel mills forged the poet who writes about them.

From Steel Womb Revisited, published by Main Street Rag Publishing, posted with the poet’s permission.

Victor, Colorado

I like a town

with horse shit

right on Main Street

and a hitching post

in front of City hall.

Eliminates loads

of big city pretense.

 

From Balancing on Two Wheels, published by Main Street Rag Publishing, posted with the poet’s permission.

On Central Avenue

Latin rhythms mamba

from the cab of the truck

ahead of me.

 

Several Hispanics — Mexicans,

I think — sit shoulder to shoulder

in the front seat, two more are

packed with the tools in the back.

 

The music is light, energetic,

and though I don’t know

many of the words, they dance

in the air with a joyful sound.

 

The young men in the truck

wear shirts soiled from sweating

beneath an intolerant sun, they

don’t notice me watching them.

 

I don’t know much about Latin music

or Espanol, but I know about sweat

and hard work and how a full day in the sun

can drain the life right out of you.

 

But that lifting rhythm speaks to me, it

bridges the barrier and resonates more than

the Mercedes man in the lane beside me

who shapes his lips to sing the blues.

 

Two Travelersfor Jill

She holds to me as if

she thinks I’m going someplace,

as if these two wheels could

take us somewhere mythical

and leave our responsibilities

at the curb.

 

She leans with me

as I speed through the turns,

tightens her grip and tucks

her hands in my pockets

when a winter breeze

bristles our resolve.

 

In Summer

on warm country roads,

she lays her arms out,

winglike, as if speed

or force of will could

lift us off the pavement.

 

We embrace our freedom

with codependence — two travelers

entangled in a journey, searching

for the sign post, the star,

the driveway that leads

to the promised land.

 

On Central Avenue was previously published in Slipstream.

 

I was thinking I wrote my first poem at 6 years old—in first grade—for my first grade teacher, Ms. Barber—who happened to have also been my mother’s first grade teacher.  It was about a robin. I’m not a person who likes to lose or likes to be corrected in front of a class. You know how young kids are—especially when a 6 year old is willing to debate his teacher about the physical activity of birds because he got a question wrong on a multiple choice test. But then I was thinking, Do they actually have multiple choice tests in first grade?—So maybe it was second grade. Anyway—it was a lo-o-o-o-ong time ago.

Scott co-hosts a monthly reading with Jonathan Rice, Third Friday Reading Series, held at The Third Place in Charlotte.


 

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